North Dakota had prohibition as part of its state laws since it was added as a star on the flag in 1889.
Prohibition became federal law in 1920. While the intent of the state and federal laws was the same, to prevent alcohol sales and use, the methods were different.
Under state law, the penalty for moonshining or bootlegging was commonly 90 days in jail.
Federal law had another component of punishment.
Prior to federal prohibition, the United States government had a tax on the production of alcohol. Congress did not eliminate the tax even when it made the production of alcohol illegal.
Late in 1920, more than a century ago, a father and son near Medina were raided by federal officers. The son’s farm had a still, some mash and alcohol on the premises. The father had a still but it was in pieces and not operational and no alcohol was found.
Both entered guilty pleas with the son receiving a $100 fine and the father a $5 fine. They likely thought the case was over and went back to feeding the cows.
In January 1921, they received notice from the Internal Revenue Service saying that each owed federal alcohol taxes of about $2,500 which included penalties and interest for taxes not paid in previous years when it was assumed they were making ‘shine.
The notice called for the taxes to be paid on or before Feb. 4.
The Jamestown Alert did not mention the names of the Medina father and son with the tax problems but did quote their attorney saying they were asking to have the taxes canceled. The assumption from the attorney and the newspaper reporters was that the tax levy against the father would be vacated being that there was no proof he had ever made alcohol.
The case was complicated by the fact the father was an immigrant to the United States and had limited command of the English language.
The federal tax law was part of the prohibition enforcement efforts of the U.S. government. Even if a little time in jail didn’t scare the potential bootlegger, a big assessment by the IRS might.
According to newspaper accounts, the $2,500 tax assessment, equivalent to about $32,000 today, was on the low end of the levies made across the region. A moonshiner in Lidgerwood had gotten hit with $6,500 in taxes and penalties for his illegal still.
This law enforcement method gave us the term “revenuers” for federal prohibition enforcement agents.
If the FBI didn’t get you, the IRS did.